The fear-tension-pain cycle – letting go for labour, ways to prepare your mind to release.
So you’re pregnant – congratulations! Now you’ve started to share the good news, we at the Daisy Foundation are willing to bet that you’ve started getting the horror stories – the failed inductions, the 3rd degree tears, the days long labour…right? In the words of Chandler Bing could that BE less helpful?
Think about your reaction when you got the last round of grim labour stories. You winced, you grimaced, you clenched your pelvic floor and tensed your knees together? Oh yes, that’s the good old fear factor – fight or flight – setting in. Fear makes your nervous system produce adrenaline, which increases your heart rate, makes your breathing shallower, blood diverts from your non-essential organs and your muscles tense. Perfectly understandable…but now think about where your baby’s going to come from. Uh huh. Your body being tense from your belly button to your knees isn’t going to help your baby on their way, is it? Your fear leads to tension, and tension leads to pain.
When adrenaline is produced in a labouring woman, it inhibits the production of two other hormones; oxytocin and endorphins. It’s these two hormones that are responsible for stimulating the contractions of the uterus, and for blocking the feelings of pain a woman feels. Without these present in sufficient quantities a woman’s labour will be longer, more stressful, and more painful than if we allow our bodies to limit the production of adrenaline.
So what if you were told that you can help prevent the pain of labour? Let’s start by looking at the fear aspect of the cycle. Fear of the unknown is a well-established phenomenon and it holds true in labour too. Just as each woman and each pregnancy is different, so too is each birth experience. For a first-time mum with no point of reference, the thought of pushing a baby out of a hole that small can be pretty terrifying. Reduce the unknown, however, and you can reduce the fear. And that’s where antenatal education comes in. A knowledgeable, informed woman is one who no longer fears the unknown. Now – no woman can plan their birth experience entirely, otherwise we’d all be having two-hour labours with no tearing or pooing (am I right?) but by becoming knowledgeable about the birth process, about the options available to you and about how you can influence the birth to be the best possible outcome on the day by playing the hand that’s dealt, then you can make it all a lot less scary. What’s more, by being so well prepared, this knowledge becomes innate and you won’t have to rouse yourself too much from your birth bubble to give consideration to anything that might need a decision from you. Coming out of that internally focussed zone allows adrenaline to creep up – not good for your oxytocin levels.
We’ve looked at how you can reduce your fear by preparing your cortex (your ‘thinking brain’, responsible for knowledge and decision making) ahead of the big day, but you can also prepare your limbic system (or ‘emotional brain’) to release fear. Now your limbic system is responsible for many things, one of which is your fight or flight reflex…yep, that again. And where knowledge and information can affect your cortex, we need a different language to speak to the emotional brain. Something that will help you exercise the part of the brain which switches on – and off – that adrenaline switch. This is where relaxations and visualisations come in. Using guided visualisations such as seeing each contraction as a wave building up in intensity, peaking and gently rippling away while in a state of pain-free relaxation can encourage your body to return to that state when anchoring itself to those visualisations in labour. Your breathing becomes easier and floods the body with oxygen, your muscles are relaxed and free of tension which makes each contraction more effective, you’re disassociated from feelings of pain which keeps oxytocin and endorphin levels high. Pretty impressive, right?
There’s another way to keep adrenaline, fear and tension out of the birthing room with you, and that’s the room itself. Imagine a stark white, brightly lit room that smells slightly of Dettol that hums with the electric lights. Now picture a dimly lit, warm room filled with your favourite scent and music. It’s unlikely you’re going to be feeling very comfortable in room number one. And if you’re not comfortable, if you don’t feel safe and secure, then your adrenaline will rise and your labour might stall. So really think about preparing your birth space to be a place where you can feel comfortable in. Many hospitals and birth centres are really accommodating at letting you take in goodies from home.
The most important thing to remind yourself in labour though? I trust my body to birth my baby. What we believe, our bodies can conceive!
(Contributed by one of our Cheshire Daisy teachers, Meg Hill)